Sunday, January 10, 2010

NINE - Pop Culture Meets a Catholic Sensibility

OK, I have to do it. Normally I would not do a movie review, but since I have not seen a decent Cathololic review of the film "NINE", I offer some thoughts, because I found beneath its glitzy veneer of slick burlesque production numbers, a thoroughly Catholic sensibility, with something profound to say about the human condition and the search for meaning.  If you look past the glamour, this is actually a moving story of sin and redemption - of a tormented genius fighting to regain his art and his very soul, as well as a celebration of the joys and sorrows of life and therefore, it deserves analysis. (Warning: spoilers ahead)

Certainly, Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), who grew up Catholic in early 20th century Italy, is a hardened sinner - he engages in frequent (non-graphically portrayed) adultery and can't keep his mind off of women to whom he is not married, but somehow they all pale in comparison to his obsession with his mother, played by Sophia Loren, who is a serene, reassuring Madonna-like presence, (inevitably wearing a cross necklace and a beaming smile among a sea of lit candles) who never really left his life when she died. It seems he is looking, in all the other women, underneath the sexual desire, for someone who will soothe his soul as she did - and his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) - when she is willing to do it, serves in the same capacity. It is Luisa who he phones for help when he cannot pull together the many conflicting threads of his current film project.

Although the Church is portrayed in the movie in a less-than flattering light there is no doubt that Guido considers himself Catholic.  One priest in a cardinal's entourage frankly admits that while the Church condemns Guido's movies, all the priests secretly love them, and that the cardinal would appreciate an autographed photo of Guido's sexy star Claudia (Nicole Kidman). There is also an unpleasant flashback to Guido as a child being beaten by a monsignor/headmaster at his school for consorting on the beach with a prostitute (Fergie) However, despite the hypocrisy and the unpleasant memories Guido's faith is so much a part of him that he can't shake it off.

Before he prepares to make love to his mistress (Penelope Cruz) he removes the crucifix from over the bed - a comical indication that he believes Jesus might be watching.  He seeks out the visiting cardinal to consult about his troubled life, but in a scene in a hot-tub when that cardinal responds to his cry of despairing confusion with platitudes about virtue instead of meaningful conversation, Guido sinks beneath the water, remembering the episode that led to the childhood beating. It is as if he is immersed in the very baptismal waters of what it meant to grow up Catholic in that time and place, and for him, those memories are not pleasant.

When Guido's life finally falls apart, even his star, Claudia, who has tried honestly to confront him with his reality, abandons him, he shuts down production and basically engages in what amounts to a 2-year penitential retreat, walking around Rome, leading a lonely, celibate, thoughtful life. His shaking off of the fast-paced sex-obsessed lifestyle and return to his original, more sincere artistry as a film-maker (probably what attracted people to his earlier, more successful movies) is a sign that he has engaged in a process of reconciliation. While it would have been more interesting to see Guido walking into a church rather than just pacing the streets, it is clear that his upbringing has led him back to his real self, and that he has found the relationship between virture and good creativity in his art.

Ultimately, Guido's love for his wife triumphs over all his other relationships - in the closing sequence, friends and lovers quietly take a literal place in the background of his life, and the film ends on a hopeful note of some kind of possible reconciliation. As his wife drifts into the rear of studio, she sees Guido, raised aloft with the cameraman ready to direct his new film, with his own child-self seated in his lap, and she smiles ... and if that isn't a moment of redemption, I don't know what is.

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